Our favorite video games are nothing more than frozen frames animated rapidly by machines. Protagonists like Mario, Master Chief, and Mega Man all exist as carefully rendered lines of code captured in time and tossed onto our monitors. The process behind this is impressive and hidden.
Case in point: When the first two seconds of Super Mario Bros. 3 are extracted, translated into text, and printed up on paper, the operations carried out by the CPU fill 3,000 pages and stand six inches tall when stacked on the ground. It’s enough operations to fill three three-inch binders. We know this thanks to artist and programmer Matt Bierner, who took the time to render the operations that make Mario move into a book that anyone can read.
“This project shows the volume of operations that even old CPUs could churn through,” Bierner wrote on his blog. “For modern games, even a single frame would undoubtedly generate an order of magnitude more operations and be quite unprintable.”
According to Bierner, going through the pages and staring at the simple strings of numbers and letters that animate Mario in a world we all know is a vertiginous experience. It’s like looking at his DNA.
The tome covers the first two seconds comprising 120 frames of World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s organized by frame, with a picture of said frame acting as a title card before Bierner lists the thousands of operations that go into rendering each individual moment. On average, each frame runs 9,750 operations.
To accomplish this task, Bierner collected the data using an emulator—which virtually recreates a console on a modern PC in order to run old games—and a trace logger to capture the executed instructions. He used a script to capture screenshots of each frame and converted the raw data into an html book.
Bierner printed up exactly one copy of the 3,000 page tome—encased in three binders—and he’s listed it for $35 on eBay.
“It’s one of kind; I have no plans to make another,” he wrote in his blog. “A book of the operations used to run Super Mario Bros. 3 is just one of those things I felt should exist. Now it does. If the thing does sell, any proceeds will be donated to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.”
The tools and scripts Bierner used are available via his GitHub, “in case you want to print your very own Mega-Man-azine or Castlevan-ovella,” he wrote.